A January visit in 1965 shows Martin Luther King Jr. with Nathan M. Pusey (left), Harvard’s 24th president, and the Rev. Charles P. Price on the steps of Appleton Chapel. The visit came just two months before the televised violence of the protest march in Selma, Ala.

Photo courtesy of the Harvard University Archives

Nation & World

King’s Harvard connections

5 min read

He preached at the University, and ties to the slain Civil Rights leader extend back half a century

Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. may be most associated with his efforts to desegregate the South, but the minister also had a valuable and lasting relationship with New England, and with Harvard.

Before his turn as a Boston University graduate student, King attended classes as a special student at Harvard in 1952 and 1953. Throughout the 1960s, King returned to Harvard time and again to lecture, including a memorable talk after being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. That visit on Jan. 10, 1965, happened mere months before he led the now-famous protest marches through Selma, Ala.

Soundbytes: Martin Luther King Jr., 1962

Listen to a clip from the speech delivered at Harvard Law School in 1962 by Martin Luther King Jr.

King cautioned against hatred and revenge, despite the violent cauldron of political fervor stirred by opponents of the Civil Rights Movement. “The philosophy of an eye for an eye,” he said, “results in everyone being blind.” Months later, King led a procession of thousands from Roxbury to Boston Common, his first march outside the South.

In honor of his national day of remembrance, below is a roundup of Gazette stories on King’s history at Harvard, including testimonials from those who knew him.

On Jan. 16, Harvard will celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. at 7:30 p.m. in Sanders Theatre with “Joyful Noise,” a concert featuring the Harlem Gospel Choir.

On Jan. 17, the Memorial Church hosts a commemoration of King at 11 a.m. with speaker Lawrence E. Carter, professor of religion and dean of the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel, Morehouse College.

When King came to Harvard
He returned often during the campaign for Civil Rights, as guest preacher. He attended classes as a special student in 1952 and 1953, taking philosophy courses on Plato and on Alfred North Whitehead, earning a B and an A-, respectively. King also was a guest preacher at Harvard’s Memorial Church during the 1959-1960 school year, the first in a string of visits to the University’s chief pulpit.

Professor Harvey Cox (pictured) first met Martin Luther King Jr. in the late 1950s. “It turned out that we were born the same year, we were both Baptist ministers, we both had a strong interest in the theologian Paul Tillich,” Cox recalled. “So we formed a kind of a friendship that continued.” In the 1960s, when Cox was a Harvard doctoral student, King asked him to create a Boston branch of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. File photo by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

My memories of Dr. King
Harvard Professor Harvey Cox reflects on his friendship with King. Cox was a Harvard doctoral student in the early 1960s when King called and asked him to help create a Boston branch of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the influential Civil Rights organization that King helped found in 1957.

On Aug. 28, 1963, the March on Washington brought more than 200,000 people to the Lincoln Memorial. It was there that Martin Luther King Jr. (front row, second from left) delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. Rowland Scherman/U.S. Information Agency

The dream, 50 years later
Those with Harvard ties reflect on the bittersweet legacy of the March on Washington. On Aug. 28, 2013, thousands joined President Obama at the Lincoln Memorial to mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and celebrate a powerful moment in the Civil Rights Movement.

“It was a moral imperative. I could do more than hope; I could act. I did not have to await a tidal wave; I could be part of it,” said Faust, pictured here in Birmingham, Ala., in 1964.

Remembering, and returning to, Selma
Harvard President Drew Faust delivered Morning Prayers on March 6, 2015, offering those gathered in Appleton Chapel for the solemn service a deeply personal reflection on her experience with the Civil Rights Movement 50 years before.

This contact sheet captures Martin Luther King Jr.’s January 1965 visit to the Memorial Church to deliver a speech. Courtesy of Harvard University Archives/UAV 605 V 127

‘The weapon of love’
The man who literally wrote the book on King’s preaching talked about the Civil Rights leader at Memorial Church on Jan. 19, 2014. Richard Lischer of Duke Divinity School is a professor of preaching and onetime Lutheran pastor.

“The popular perception is that these streets are not worthy of King’s name. They’re segregated, they’re poor, there’s vacant property everywhere,” said Harvard’s Daniel D’Oca of the American streets named to honor the slain Civil Rights icon. Courtesy of Daniel D’Oca

Returning to Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy
A project examined somewhat-forgotten street areas named after King, aiming to help residents boost their neighborhoods.